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Hot Spots Start to Get Real
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Cooling Your Heels in a Hot Spot

One of the real problems with current coverage, however, isn't necessarily density: if every McDonald's, Subway, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks had access, you'd still find yourself without service in places you might spend much longer periods of time, if you're traveling for business or pleasure: hotels and airports.



Currently, several hundred hotels offer some combination of Ethernet in the room and Wi-Fi; more are switching to all Wi-Fi, as the cost has dropped while wiring expenses stay the same.

In the last few weeks, several hotel chains, large and small (but mostly in the premium range) have announced radical expansions to their in-hotel Wi-Fi service. Omni will add Wi-Fi to all 30 of their hotels and not charge separately for it. Marriott and a few ownership groups that have properties across several chains have talked about adding Wi-Fi to hundreds of hotels each. Intel has even gotten involved in helping hotels unwire and marketing their wireless access to try to push adoption of Wi-Fi.

(Intel, separate from its Cometa investment, is trying to push its new Centrino laptop system with $300 million in advertising, some of which is tagged to co-market wISPs and other hot spots that are "Centrino verified," which just means you can connect to them with the Wi-Fi circuitry in a Centrino laptop. Most of the wISPs have already been verified or have announced support for becoming verified.)

Airports haven't quite had the same boost. Only a couple of dozen airports offer any service, and the most likely suspects, the New York metro airports (JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark), have a contract with Concourse Communications. Concourse unwired Minneapolis-St. Paul last year, but has lagged on its original plans to have a test installation in one or two of the New York airports by mid-2002.

Because of the founding of two wISPs in Texas, Austin and Dallas have long had service. Austin even has both Wayport and MobileStar-cum-T-Mobile service, the only airport with two terminal providers.

With T-Mobile's expansion into airport club lounges, like the United Red Carpet Club, we'll see a modest increase in coverage. San Francisco's unwiring should send a message, too, that the time has arrived.

But putting Wi-Fi into an airport is a complicated matter because of several constituencies that aren't seen by passengers: airlines, airport or port authorities, and the FAA. All have their own interests in, and may even already be running, wireless networks. Those interests have to be placated and addressed, often with specific security plans that separate networks into VLANs (virtual LANs) so that one kind of user can't sniff or access other networks on the same physical wire or invisible spectrum.

I expect by the end of 2003 that at least the 25 to 30 largest metro airports will have reasonable Wi-Fi coverage; we're about halfway there already. Once New York unwires, the expectation will change for travelers, who will assume that every airport will have service.

Current North American airports with Wi-Fi service include, just for the record: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Flint, Greensboro, Los Angeles (one gate), Louisville, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Norfolk, Ottawa, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle-Tacoma, Sioux Falls (South Dakota), Tampa, Toledo, Vancouver (British Columbia), and Wichita.

Price

Pricing is still all over the board. Most wISPs have never turned a profit, and most reports indicate only a few connections a day, even at high-volume hot spots. While that could change rapidly because of the factors cited above, pricing is likely to remain volatile and possibly strange as companies continue to sort out the balance between what they need to charge and what the market will bear.

T-Mobile HotSpot. T-Mobile rejiggered its payment plans starting March 6, 2003. All of the new service options include unlimited data transfer; formerly, you paid 25 cents per megabyte above 500 Mb each month.

With pay-as-you-go service, you pay $6.00 per hour with a minimum charge of one hour, and then 10 cents per minute thereafter. A prepay option costs $50 for 300 minutes ($8.33 per hour), but only bills in 10-minute minimum sessions, per-minute after ten minutes. Prepaid minutes expire 120 days after purchase.

Wireless Networking Resources from Adam Engst and Glenn Fleishman

T-Mobile has two unlimited service plans: $30 per month with a one-year commitment, and $40 per month for month-to-month service. Canceling the one-year commitment requires you to pay a $200 fee; the $40 per month service requires a $25 cancellation fee. (Both can be cancelled at no charge within 30 days.)

Wayport. For frequent travelers, Wayport's monthly service plan is a bargain. They also partner with Boingo (see below), which might be a slightly better deal, depending on your usage. Wayport offers just daily and monthly rates. In airports, a day rate is usually $7 and covers until midnight of that day. In a hotel, the rate is usually $10 (although it can vary at some properties) and covers until the next check-in time.

You can prepurchase 3, 8, or 20 connections for $25, $50, and $100, respectively. For hotel travelers, the $25 and $50 options are discounts.

Monthly fees for unlimited access are $30 for a one-year commitment with cancellation penalties, or $50 for month-to-month.

Surf and Sip. Surf and Sip charges $5 per hour through prepaid 30-minute and 120-minute cards bought at their venues. They also offer 1-, 7-, and 30-day cards starting at the time of purchase for $5, $20, and $40. Their monthly unlimited plans are $20 for one-year commitment with cancellation fees, or $30 month-to-month. Surf and Sip locations are also part of the Boingo network.

FatPort. FatPort charges Canadian (Cdn) $3 for 15 minutes, Cdn$8 for 60 minutes, or Cdn$15 for 24 hours. A monthly subscription is Cdn$40 month-to-month, and a current promotion offers six months for Cdn$160. Their monthly account has a 500-megabyte download limit.

Airpath Wireless. Airpath has a random assortment of hot spots around the U.S.. They offer a hot-spot starter kit that allows venues to add for-fee service, and then aggregate listings for these locations. Check their site to find listings for smaller airports and smaller chains of hotels and other venues.

Boingo Wireless. I mention Boingo near the end not because they're least important, but because they're not a wISP. As an aggregator, their goal is to use software to ease the login and profile problem.

Their Boingo client scans for local networks, and identifies those run by their partner networks, including Wayport and Surf and Sip. It also shows some free networks. A single username at Boingo gets you in to each of these other networks, which is a huge time and management saver, and can also reduce costs.

Boingo charges by day-long sessions, which are defined just like Wayport's, as far as I can tell. A single session is $8. A limited monthly plan with one-year commitment is $25 for 10 sessions, with a discount down to $5 for additional sessions. For unlimited sessions, the fee is $50 per month. Cancellation penalties apply for both monthly plans.

• Other aggregators: Both iPass and GRIC aggregate dial-up, wired, and wireless ISP service around the world, but both generally sell to companies as a tool for their roaming employees. iPass only offers per-day and per-hour rates, depending on service, while GRIC doesn't make its rates public.

Summing Up

While it's not necessary to pay for hot spot service as you roam around a town, those of us who find ourselves in "captive venues," like conference centers, hotel, and airports, are anxious for the full rollout of consistently-priced service backed with technical support and some kind of guarantee of uptime and bandwidth.

We're on the verge of a big explosion in service, where on every block in a city, and in every property in commercial and office areas, real Internet access that's practically seamless is provided. The next step is roaming and partnership in which all of the big and small networks allow some kind of simple access to each other's networks; it's starting to coalesce, but no clear path is in sight.

I'm not necessarily looking forward to paying $50 per month for unlimited access, but I will enjoy no longer fumbling with cell phone GSM/GPRS network connections, paying $1.50 to make a local modem call, or arguing with myself over whether paying $8 for a few hours access is worthwhile.

My time might actually be valuable enough to make the fee worthwhile.